Mercedes went into the Monaco Grand Prix as hot favourites to win. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton duly locked out the front row of the grid on Saturday.
But on the morning of the race it emerged both drivers had taken part in a secret tyre test following the last race. Red Bull and Ferrari confirmed they were lodging a protest.
Mercedes have struggled with tyre wear in the races more than any other team this year. Suddenly their form in Monaco seemed to owe less to how the low-grip track flattered the W04, and more to what they might have learned covering three Grand Prix distances in a clandestine test.
Slow starting Mercedes stay ahead
Neither Mercedes driver got away particularly well when the lights went out, and Vettel took a speculative look down the inside of Rosberg. “I think I could have gone past both Mercedes but didn’t have the room, had to lift,” he said afterwards.
Rosberg went into the first corner side-by-side and that was it for Vettel’s chances of separating them, though he gave Hamilton a hard time over the opening laps.
The next cars behind them also remained in grid order. Mark Webber was followed by Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez. The first driver to have gained a position at the start was Jenson Button, who’d taken Adrian Sutil at Sainte Devote.
He’d also got down the inside of his team mate at the chicane, only for Perez to cut across the run-off to stay ahead. The same happened at the swimming pool complex, and the fact that they are team mates did not stop Button pointing out on the radio that he should be given the position.
“I know we’re both team mates but he cut the chicane when I was up the inside of him to keep the position,” he complained. It took ten laps for the stewards to intervene and Perez was fortunate they told him to hand back the place instead of issuing a penalty. Nor was it his last incident of the day.
Mercedes control the race
The Mercedes drivers controlled the pace early in the race, saving their tyres and preventing the field from spreading out – denying their pursuers the chance to pit.
“I think we could see that the field didn’t spread out,” said Vettel, “they did what worked best for them”.
“It was just basically saving tyres and making the one-stop work,” said Webber. “It was completely predictable that if the race was going to stack up then the two-stop was not really an option to come back into traffic.”
It wasn’t until lap 25 that enough of a gap had opened up behind for one of the front runners to consider making a pit stop. Webber arrived first, reappearing in a gap left by the struggling Williams of Valtteri Bottas.
Raikkonen, who’d been running close behind Webber, came in next. This looked like it would present an opportunity to Alonso, who had been shadowing the pair of them, and had dropped back early apparently trying to make his tyres last longer.
On lap 28 Alonso headed for the pits and for once he wasn’t even to get ahead of Raikkonen’s Lotus – although there wasn’t much in it. This was a disappointment for Ferrari, but it was nothing compared to what happened next.
Massa shunts, Hamilton loses out
Felipe Massa had started from the back row after a nasty shunt in practice kept him out of qualifying. Massa had lost control of his car on a bump approaching Sainte Devote, crunched into the barrier on the left which fired him into another barrier on the exit of the corner.
Beginning lap 29, two laps after changing to the super-soft tyres, he had a very similar accident. Massa was whisked away to hospital where the doctors found all was well, but having two similar and destructive crashes in a short space of time can’t help but have an effect on him.
It certainly had consequences for the race, as the Safety Car was summoned. Vettel made it onto the pit lane before it arrived but the Mercedes pair had to finish a lap at reduced speed, driving to the Safety Car delta time, having not caught up with it yet.
Vettel returned to the track ahead of Webber and soon caught up to the Safety Car, which waved them past on the approach to Mirabeau. While they pressed on, Rosberg was arriving in the pits. Hamilton had been told to drop back so he wouldn’t have to wait too long behind his team mate. But he allowed too much of a gap to build up, and the time lost meant he fell behind both Red Bulls.
Perez takes Alonso on
The race resumed with Rosberg now missing his rear gunner. But he had little to fear from Vettel, who while the Safety Car was out was warned by his race engineer that his tyres had been “marginal” at the end of the last stint. Rosberg was advised his tyres had more than half their life left in them.
Rosberg pulled out a 1.9 second lead over Vettel on the first flying lap while a queue developed behind the Red Bulls. Hamilton was being particularly aggressive in his pursuit of Webber, even diving down the inside at Rascasse at one point. They came out side-by-side but Webber out-accelerated him to Anthony Noghes and stayed ahead.
Behind them Alonso had the McLaren pair on his heels. Button knocked the Ferrari at the Loews hairpin and Perez took advantage. He dived down the inside of his team mate at the chicane to take back the place he’d surrendered earlier. “Checo got a really good run on me coming out of the tunnel,” Button admitted afterwards, adding “I wasn’t paying attention”.
Now Perez set his sights on Alonso. Again he took his opportunity at the chicane with an uncompromising move. Alonso, knowing that championships aren’t won by needless collisions in a contest over sixth place, cut across the chicane rather than bang wheels with the McLaren.
But he knows well enough from his own experience (Silverstone 2010 in particular) that you don’t get to do that and keep your position. Protesting on the radio that he did it “to avoid a collision” was never going to wash.
Crash stops race
Before that matter was settled an alarming crash at Tabac brought the race to a temporary stop. Max Chilton had slowed at the chicane after being passed by Esteban Gutierrez, and Pastor Maldonado had drawn alongside him at the following corner.
Chilton drifted right into Maldonado’s path, pitching the Williams into the air and heavy contact with the barriers. The impact was so great one barrier broke loose and was collected by the following Marussia of Jules Bianchi. All involved were fortunate to escape injury.
During the stoppage the remaining drivers took the opportunity to change their tyres. The stewards also told Alonso to give his place to Perez when the race resumed, which he did.
After a 25-minute minute interruption the second Safety Car restart of the day saw Rosberg resume in the lead followed by the two Red Bulls, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Perez, Button and Sutil. All bar Raikkonen had opted for super-soft tyres – the Lotus driver taking a second set of softs instead.
Sutil and Perez go on the attack
Sutil went on the attack after the restart. He caught Button completely by surprise at Loews hairpin, diving down the inside of the McLaren. Five laps later he pulled exactly the same trick on Alonso, leaving the Ferrari driver eighth. The next driver ahead was Perez and McLaren were quick to warn him of Sutil’s chosen method of attack.
Perez had his hands full trying to get past Raikkonen. The pair have already crossed paths this year and Raikkonen was none too impressed when the McLaren came down the inside of him at the chicane too quickly, forcing both to cut the corner. “That idiot would have crashed into me if I hadn’t gone straight.”
Raikkonen was even less impressed when the pair collided on lap 69. Perez came from a long way back at the chicane and Raikkonen was not inclined to give him in space, moving towards the inside. The contact between them left Raikkonen with a puncture. He limped into the pits and resumed in 16th, his chances of scoring points seemingly lost.
But as in China, for all Raikkonen’s fulminations about Perez (and there was more to come after the race), the stewards found nothing wrong with what was clearly a racing incident.
Not that Perez get away cleanly. His front wing had lost several elements but he was able to continue. More serious was the damage to his brake ducts. The discs began to overheat, forcing him to pull off. As he did Alonso tried to take advantage and claim his place back from Sutil but succeeded only in losing a position to Button.
Rosberg brings it home
Rosberg had to cope with a third interruption from the Safety Car before he finally got to see the chequered flag. Romain Grosjean drove into the back of Daniel Ricciardo at the chicane, taking both out of the race.
However Rosberg never looked likely to come under threat from Vettel, even if the Red Bull driver did reel off a rapid lap on the penultimate tour “for satisfaction”.
Last year’s winner Webber joined them on the podium after a race of “just driving around, saving the tyres and waiting for the chequered flag”.
Hamilton was followed home by Sutil, Button and Alonso. The latter had a strangely off-colour day which was only partly due to picking up debris on his car during the race. He suspected poor traction was the root of his problems.
Jean-Eric Vergne and Paul di Resta were promoted into the points by the late race incidents. The last point was taken – remarkably – by Raikkonen. Thanks to a performance advantage in the region of four seconds on fresh tyres he picked off both Saubers and Bottas in the final two laps.
After serving a drive-through penalty for his part in the race-stopping crash, Chilton passed Giedo van der Garde for 14th two laps from home, also aided by fresher tyres.
Van der Garde has spoiled his qualifying result by crashing into Maldonado on the first lap, forcing both to pit. The other Caterham of Charles Pic had gone out with a fire early in the race.
Controversy casts shadow over race
Nico Rosberg dominated the Monaco Grand Prix weekend. He topped all the practice sessions, took pole position and led every lap on his way to victory.
It was effectively a home race win for the German driver with a famous Finnish father, who spent much of his life in Monaco. And it came 30 years after Keke scored a memorable and brilliant Monaco win of his own.
But if Rosberg hoped any of that might take people’s minds of the controversy which came to light on the morning of the race, he was to be disappointed. The first question he faced from a journalist afterwards was: “The secret test days that you had in Barcelona – how helpful were those days for you?”
“I’m not going to comment,” Rosberg replied. “I’m not going to comment on that. You have to ask Pirelli.”
2013 Monaco Grand Prix
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- Mallya: Monaco “silenced critics” ahead of 100th race
- 2013 Monaco Grand Prix fans’ video gallery
- Ricciardo told Grosjean “you’re an idiot” after crash
Images © Daimler/Hoch Zwei, Marussia